Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Goodbye, My Rose Garden volume 1 isn't historically accurate but it is nice enough (manga review)

Two women, an aristocrat and a maid, are holding hands in a formal rose garden
Goodbye, My Rose Garden vol. 1 - 6/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

I don't normally read historical fiction manga, but as always, I'm so desperate for manga about adult women in relationships with each other that I'll try just about anything. So I bought and read "Goodbye, My Rose Garden" volume 1 (Seven Seas) not sure exactly what I'd find. What I found was a completely unrealistic but still enjoyable first volume in a melodramatic but kind story.

Hanako comes from Japan to England at the beginning of the 20th century looking to meet an author she is obsessed with. When the publisher turns her away, she realizes she has no where to go and no purpose in England. Then she meets Alice Douglas, a wealthy aristocrat in need of a new maid. Alice has Hanako be her personal assistant and they bond over their love of books. Eventually Hanako gets the sense that Alice might be interested in her as more than a friend and the feeling is mutual. However, Alice is engaged to Edward and the gossip is flying in all the circles that Alice used to love a woman, her former governess. Amidst all this, Alice agrees to help Hanako discover the person behind her favorite author's pen name in exchange for a promise, a promise that Hanako will help Alice end her own life.

First things first, this is about as a-historical as it gets. From the events to the way characters interact and speak, it is nothing like what turn of the century England would really be like. I had to quickly let go of that or I would have spent my entire time reading, and thus reviewing, being completely distracted by all the wrong details. Don't go into this expecting an accurate historical experience. Once you let go of that, you can settle into a story that is actually pretty enjoyable.

We get the pretty clear understanding by the mid-point of this first volume that the reason Alice wants to die is that she's gay and cannot bear to go through with her marriage. But what I'm hoping, given that this is a modern story, is that the lesbians-must-die-in-the-end trope won't be used here. Typically, these stories have ended in one of two ways: 1) the lesbians marry men and remain unhappy or 2) the lesbians die instead. I don't know exactly how it will be resolved, but I just have a good feeling that we're finally getting to the point where lesbians can be happy with each other, even when the story is set in a historical time period. And if nothing else, this story's complete lack of faithfulness to historical accuracy also opens up the possibility of a happy ending.

The writing can be awfully clunky at times. No one, I mean no one, talks like they do in this, and certainly not in the early 1900s. I mean, it's as purple prose at times as you can get. Maybe it's the original text, or maybe the translation, or maybe both. The truth is, it just doesn't matter. You didn't come here for elegantly written turn of the century dialogue. The historical setting is just window dressing and makes for fun costume design, but it is hardly the point. You came here for two women in love.

The writing (and of course the plot) are also both melodramatic and soap-opera-y. But you can't help but root for the two women. Even the other servants in the house seem to want Alice to be happy and seem to understand that there is the promise of a relationship between Alice and Hanako if only Alice would find a way to rise past her fears and the hatred of society. And it seems, Hanako is desperate for that too, saying "This is my story, and I will not allow this to end in tragedy!" Well, alright then!

There is a nice moment early on in the volume where Hanako is spoken down to and where she tears the guy a new one. It's one of  the most overtly feminist speeches I've encountered in manga in a long time. However, since it is set in the early 1900s, it comes off like a "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" type of speech - i.e. as a very anachronistic form of feminism. But I was glad it was there none-the-less, and establishes Hanako's strength, and the author's voice, right off the bat.

There's another scene, in a bookstore, where Hanako and the bookseller are talking about Oscar Wilde's arrest, imprisonment, and death. Hanako, also clearly the voice of the author, expresses not only what a tragedy this is, but her stance clearly in support of gay rights: "but all he did was fall in love with be shackled by expectation is what's truly unnatural." You tell 'em!

On the art side, it's fine, but predictably cutesy. Moe-ish, uninteresting lines, some detail and "period" decor, but overall uninspired. It's serviceable art that will grant you access to the characters, and since the point is to watch these two women meet, grow close, and then struggle to be together is the point. beautiful art is always a bonus, but at least this art is fine. There's no fan service, which is great. I just would have liked more elegant, refined, and naturalistic art. But whatever.

Basically, don't read this for accurate period details, don't read it for incredible art. Don't read it for brilliantly written prose. Read it because you want a melodrama about adult lesbians set a hundred years ago with the likelihood of a happy ending. And you know, that's probably progress in the scheme of lesbian stories. Overall, despite many flaws and things that aren't my personal taste in manga, this was a fun and sort of heart-warming read and I will definitely get the next volume. "Goodbye, My Rose Garden" gets a 6/10 which is higher than I would have suspected given my normal lack of interest in historical settings in manga.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 6.5 - there's some connections between the women through the governess from Alice's past. There's also the hidden identity of the author Hanako loves. And there's two adult women falling in love. Not bad actually.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6 - We like them both, but they're not really deep yet. I don't feel like we know them. They're mostly stock characters with one note and one purpose. But we still like them.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 4 - I have to say, this was some of the least enjoyable prose in a manga in a while for me. It was so fake turn-of-the-century mixed with fake aristocrat plus the purple prose that it really does get in the way at times and can pull you out of the moment.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 6 - I'm hedging here. Historically, and unfortunately even now-a-days, many LGBTQ+ people contemplate or even attempt suicide. But Alice's asking for help with that does seem a bit premeditated. She seems sad, sure, but the length of time to plan it out feels maybe a bit more Thelma and Louise than it does true depression or hopelessness. But, it's also very true that she probably would have been trapped by her title and wealth. So, who knows? The prose itself is so silly at times, it's hard to always find the emotional core.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 5.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 0 - no added insight here into the human condition. We're definitely into the characters, but they aren't revealing anything new to us.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 1 - I'm going to give this a bonus point because it is starting to go beyond the standard "yuri" (ie relationships divorced from social reality) and actually explore the implications of being gay in society. I hope it does more as the series progresses.
  • Female agency (0-5): 2 - Bonus points for Hanako's speeches as well as, like it or not, Alice's determination to kill herself is a form of agency. I think back to my favorite novel, Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" which very much makes the case that choosing death can be a strong form of agency. (Sorry if that was a spoiler. Read that book anyway).
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 0 - too early for this in the series.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - serviceable, but not worth bonus points.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0



Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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